These days, Dad’s wardrobe consists solely of double denim and flimsy white tennis shoes, but in 1984, after watching Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor, he sported pink and yellow blazers. Dad had a museum of cowboy boots – about 20 pairs ranging in color and animal hide, and he liked big gold rings and chains, and wore a gold bull around his neck.
But behind the curtain of Dad’s eccentricity, was a loving father, the evolution of a man who grew up in Hoboken projects, unattended by his mother, while his father spent his life in a sanitarium. He was one of nine children, but only kept in touch with one sister and a long-lost brother his mother had sold to neighbors.
Family meant everything to Dad. He enrolled my sister and me in an expensive Catholic school to ensure a good education, and went to church with Mom every Sunday, not because he was religious, but because it made Mom happy.
Dad ran a tight ship at home, and there were severe consequences for bad behavior. Once when I was sixteen, I snuck out of the house wearing a leopard-print tank top and leather miniskirt and hit a night club in Santa Monica, where I drank, danced and smoked cigarettes.
The next morning, Dad approached me, “Did you wear that outfit after your mother and I told you not to?” I loved him too much to lie. He walked away with disappointment in his eyes. It turned out his adult entertainment attorney had spotted me at the club. Two days later Dad sold my car and grounded me for six months.
In contrast to my flashy father was his business partner Mac whose steroidal frame stood 6’7″. Mac and Dad met while on the California Highway Patrol. Dad quit the force after a nasty motorcycle accident, and Mac was fired for accepting bribes. Later on, Mac brought Dad in as a partner to run his strip clubs in Los Angeles.
One day, we visited Mac’s penthouse apartment and met his beautiful Cockatoo. “Go ahead, you can pet him,” Mac said in his Barry White voice. The bird was so gentle, I scratched his head and his white and yellow feathers quickly stood erect on top. We were smitten.
Dad had a knack for filling the house with novelty items – carousel horses, red English phone booths – all things he purchased on a whim, so he put the word out for a parrot too. One day Big Wally, who had spent more time in prison than on the streets, paid my dad a visit at the Jet Strip, a strip club Dad owned by LAX Airport.
“Hey I hear you like parrots, you wanna buy one?,” Wally opened up his coat and revealed a green Amazon, shaking and scared. Story has it Wally got the parrot from a guy named Johnny Sanchez who owed him some money.
Dad brought the parrot home late that night. Mom was furious knowing it was just a matter of time before Dad would move onto something new. The bird whistled, said “hello” and seemed friendly so I stuck my hand right in the cage, and he pierced it sharply with his beak, drawing blood. He had me at “hello.”
We called him Huey because he always said “Huey, gimme a whistle.” Only later did we realize that Huey was probably his previous owner’s name. The vet confirmed that Huey was a 15 year old male with a lifespan of 50 – 70 years. Mom was livid.
Huey slowly became a part of our household and he quickly warmed up to me. I learned that birds find a mate for life and I apparently and accidentally, had become Huey’s mate. He learned to perfectly mimic my loud cackle. I was lathered in unconditional bird love.
He tolerated my sister because we looked so much alike, but as soon as I came into the room he’d bite her silly. Once Mom leaned in to kiss Huey, and he latched onto her lip, hanging, flapping his wings, while my mom screamed. Her stitched-up lip was swollen for a week.
Huey loved all food—pizza, popcorn, hot dogs, chicken bones, ice cream and peanuts—whatever you were eating, and despite their rocky start, Mom peeled grapes for the bird she never wanted.
He groomed my eyelashes and eyebrows or would sit in my lap and groom himself. Bird dander and feathers flew everywhere. He loved taking showers, and I’d perch him on the shower curtain rod. His wolf whistle reminded me of a strip club patron.
I went away for college and only saw Huey when I breezed in every few weeks, with my beaded hair, tie dye skirts, humming Grateful Dead tunes. I felt guilty; he wasn’t getting much attention anymore, so I spent as much time with him as I could.
During college, Mac was gunned down outside of his ranch, my dad being the investigators’ prime suspect. Shortly after, my parents’ house was raided by the LA County District Attorney’s office. Huey survived unscathed.
I graduated from college in the early 90’s and moved to the Bay Area as the dust was settling from Mac’s murder investigation. My parents threatened to send Huey to a bird rescue sanctuary. I knew taking care of Huey was like raising a petulant five-year-old, but I was too busy enjoying my freedom and convinced them he’d get more attention if he stayed in their home.
The next several years were spent hiking Muir Woods, sipping soy lattes and expanding and cataloging my extensive Star Wars toy collection. But Huey remained in the back of my mind and we’d often chat on the phone.
The murder case reopened in the late 90’s, and Dad was arrested and convicted of murder. His life prison sentence was like a death in the family, except he could still call us collect once in a while. We sold my parents’ house and cleaned out everything they had amassed over the years.
Mom insisted on selling everything – the cars, boats, guns, toy train collection, and even Huey, but I couldn’t let him go.
I drove Huey up to his new home with me in Marin County, and a few years later we moved to New York City for a fresh start. He said “Hello!” and followed me around the apartment as I got ready each morning. He loved toothpaste and had his own toothbrush.
Whenever I left, I heard him screech “goodbye!” as I descended all four flights of stairs (my poor neighbors). Some nights we stayed home, eating popcorn and watching TV. We’d take long walks in Central Park, and he’d sit on my lap as I read, greeting passers by who stopped to take his picture.
The laughing parrot in Central Park was a bit of a celebrity, the ultimate ice-breaker, my proud son. Huey del Fuego had his own Facebook profile with over 60 friends.
Last year, I was preparing for a trip overseas, when I realized Huey wasn’t acting himself. He was losing weight and feathers. He stopped talking and eating. After several tests, the vet discovered a severe tumor and offered to perform emergency surgery the next morning.
I sat with him for a while in the clinic, my tear-streaked face, blotchy and red. He screeched “goodbye” over and over as I made my way outside.
The next day, just as I entered the plane, the vet called to say that Huey’s cancer had spread beyond saving. I was blubbering like a little girl, visibly unstable, when a French-accented male flight attendant said, “Excuse me, is everything ok?” I told him about my dead parrot—it was so sudden, he had cancer, I was devastated. He rested his hand softly on my shoulder, “May I please ask you which parent this was?”
I told Dad about Huey’s death; somehow I felt responsible. He became sentimental recounting the story of how he got Huey from Big Wally, “You gave that bird a damn good life.”
Huey was the last remaining relic from my dad’s crazy, outlandish past. He was just like Dad with his garish colors, his whistling, and flirtatious behavior.
Gone were Dad’s collections of Rolls Royce grills and neon signs, the antique gas pump and enough earthquake survival gear to save greater Los Angeles from the Big One. No more strip club company Christmas parties and gone was my endless supply of lapdance passes for friends.
Before I moved to New York I owned four cars. Now I ride the subway, with extra hand sanitizer, to my corporate job. I’ve spent the last ten family Christmases in prison.
Without Huey, while sitting in Central Park I’m just like anyone else. Nobody recognizes me as the parrot lady, nobody asks for my photo.
I donated Huey’s birdseed to his vet clinic, and the vet told me they had a baby parrot named Rocky looking for a home. “Just think about it,” she said, “you already have the cage.” I ran it by my therapist, who quickly suggested “why don’t you take that energy and focus it on a relationship with an actual person instead?”
My once rowdy apartment is now silent. There’s no “hello,” no “cracker,” no peanut tossing or celery crunching. All the things that drove me crazy about that bird – the noise, the mess, the neediness – I now miss.
I moved downtown; it was much easier finding an apartment without having to answer the broker’s question, “How loud does your bird chirp?”
Now, I socialize without having to rush home and let Huey out of his cage, and I travel without having to find a birdsitter or worry about him being lonely and locked up. I can invite a guy over knowing Huey won’t attack, fly into the room, land on the bed, and say “hello!”
I eat popcorn in front of the TV with two lazy cats, and sometimes I still make enough popcorn for two, out of habit. I gaze at Huey’s ashes sitting in a box with some feathers on my bookshelf, and wonder if I’ll ever find someone, feather-free, who will love me as much as that bird did.
Then my dad calls, collect, of course.